There’s a way to describe certain films that can come off as dismissive but is sometimes totally appropriate, as there’s only so much to say sometimes. I’m referring to the term “nice.” Hillbilly Elegy is a nice film. It’s a totally fine effort from director Ron Howard who undoubtedly read J.D. Vance’s memoir the film is based on, did the homework about the Appalachian region and the people from the area, and found ways to connect it to his craft. It’s hard not to see a movie like this as one designed to spark conversation regarding awards potential. At the same time, despite its shortcomings, the things it looks to accomplish are ready for audiences to get something out of on Netflix, the platform of choice for this production.
It is somewhat fitting to see a film like this on Netflix. With audiences largely consuming media from home in 2020, a dramatic depiction of a family with roots in Appalachia may not be the theatrical draw it may have once been. That said, even without a pandemic stopping people from heading out to movie theaters in masses, the types of audiences with an inherent interest in this sort of subject matter only go to the movie theaters so often anyway. The A-list names attached add to Hillbilly Elegy’s value, but is that enough when a film only presents so much of a challenge?
Perhaps that’s not fair. J.D. (portrayed in the film as an adult by Gabriel Basso and Owen Asztalos in his younger form) wanted to put his story out there, and if his perspective is merely focused on growing up with his mother Bev (Amy Adams) and grandmother “Mamaw” (Glenn Close), is it all that necessary to dig into the world he grew up in or grew up learning about? It’s difficult, as Howard has the abilities to put these environments on display. Screenwriter Vanessa Taylor could easily adapt this story to include more about what it means to be from or live in the Appalachian region. The problem comes down to the film’s choice of highlighting performance over inspiration and impact.
In the film, we see a story unfold over two timelines. One focuses on the present, as J.D. is shown to be a bright Yale student with a loving girlfriend (Freida Pinto) and a drive to make the most out of himself, despite working multiple jobs barely covering his tuition. As J.D. enters the final rounds of interviews for an important internship, he receives news his mother has started using drugs again, forcing him to travel back home to help however he can. Once home, Bev does not make it easy for J.D. or his sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett).
Watching this (more successful) part of the story, as intense as it can be to watch these struggles and see them as real issues families go through, I kept feeling like I was being held back from understanding more. What drove Bev to drugs? What changed her circumstances in such a way over time? How have things changed from when she moved away from her hometown to Ohio?
Ideally, the other half of this story would answer these questions. Set in the past, the focus is still largely on J.D., but we also see the relationship a younger Bev has with her son and daughter, along with her own mother. As J.D. gets into some teenage hijinks or simply acts like the kid he is, we see a rage come out of Bev as a result. We’re supposed to understand that it comes from her own tough childhood. This should be embodied by Mamaw’s attitude, but while Close certainly commits to the role, it’s hard not to see much more than a “wise-cracking, tough-as-nails grandmother,” as opposed to someone who cause a significant amount of torment.
There’s also the nature of this setting and the people we are following. While I wouldn’t expect a film like this from a director like Howard to be condescending towards Appalachian people, it also feels like the edges were sanded off. Hillbilly Elegy earns its R-rating thanks to lots of language and trash talk, but I can’t say there’s much insight into the community J.D. comes from that feels any more distinct compared to people from just, more plainly, the South.
This also speaks to a lack of understanding of how the role of drugs and other socially debilitating aspects have affected the area, as opposed to just Bev. While the film is set in a specific time period, it’s actually disheartening to see a film that could easily take into account today’s climate and do nothing with that, considering the types of characters this film is dealing with.
And yet, the movie gets by on the strengths of its performances. Yes, there are big moments of characters yelling at each other, sad scenes of people breaking down and crying it all out, and moments steering towards reconciliation, among other “awards scenes.” However, Howard knows how to film those scenes. Adams and Close know how to act those scenes. And Basso does enough to know how to not get in the way of these nominated performers. There’s a lot of melodrama on display, but when it’s made to feel intensely personal as it is here, yet still be relatable, that allows enough to connect and ultimately make the film effective to a certain degree.
Sure, it comes down to faint praise, but there’s enough here to keep Hillbilly Elegy out of the hole it seemingly dug for itself with its poorly assembled trailer. Context is key, and once a viewer has the chance to sit with these characters, there are worthwhile elements to latch onto. The performances are strong enough, and even if the sense of the environment felt curiously lacking, the way this film places you in a certain time is handled by way of good production design. Yes, that may be latching onto too few details to see this as a sterling recommendation, but as stated, Hillbilly Elegy is merely a nice movie.